The Toxic Pretension of Existential Politics.


Pretension is toxic, so watch it.

Honesty, when blatant, not only breaches decorum, it also insults pretension, politically especially. Defying convention, these Cordelias speak boldly, fearing neither King Lear’s wrath nor political outrage. In the Shakespearean play, King Lear, Lear disinherits Cordelia because she refuses to pander for her patrimony.

Meanwhile, her siblings, Goneril and Regan, speak appropriately and are rewarded lavishly, though they betray Lear later. Cordelia, in contrast, valiantly intervenes to prevent Lear’s demise. Similar deceptions subvert political discussions today. Few politicians, in fact, speak plainly. Of those that do, even fewer speak wisely.

Even so, the unwillingness to speak plainly promotes political apathy and party loyalties, which weakens diplomacy and injures democracy.

Bypassing plain speaking, politicians abuse discretion and abridge discussions, betraying their constituency accordingly. In hearing them, one seldom feels as if there is a person behind the pronouncement, but only rather a plastic position, which PACs determine and pretension parades. Politicians don’t seem to be affected actually or invested morally in their views.

In fact, the only time they speak plainly is when they are attacking opponents. Then, however, defamation, not discussion, describes.

Progress occurs when honesty prevails, when plain speaking yields change or reveals the scoundrel decorum conceals. To avoid plain speaking artfully, or to chide it unjustly, drives underground what should undergird. Thus far, however, few politicians are willing to sacrifice so. Few are willing to be vulnerable. They behave instead as if they are fragile and truth is unable to stand the strain.

In adopting their manner, we are diminished aptly. Even when we see the pretension, we deny the perception, which dulls our judgment. It also weakens our actions.

How can we act effectively when we speak dishonestly? Why do so few risk reform through plain speaking and truth-telling? Contexts, of course, must be considered, else our tone will be toxic unnecessarily, inciting grievances rather than conciliating them. Plain speech, in this regard, is also responsible speech, and involves more than mouthing off.

In its absence, however, convention cripples, impoverishing debate and defrauding democracy.

Breaking decorum won’t break politicians, though it may disadvantage them temporarily, permanently possibly. Yet, without sacrifice, politics remains superficial and misleading. A progressive democracy encourages honesty, needs it to survive, and employs it to surmount enemies both within and without. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it speaks daggers without using them.

Inevitably, however, someone will be injured. Still, we shouldn’t indulge what should enrage. Currently politics plies insensibly — locally and nationally. In auditing discussions, one feels drawn into delirium. Maybe a passion for plain speaking will emerge eventually. Maybe it will inspire a new political practice. Maybe its practitioners will pioneer a new political climate, becoming en route existential politicians.

Existential politicians are plain-speaking and consequence-conscious. They live within the tension their decisions create. Like Harry Truman, they too stop the buck yet without indulging the bull politically characteristic, concealing only what diplomacy demands. In behaving so, they avoid the delusion that dilutes democracy’s force and truth’s right.

Instead, they root their words and decisions in a knowledge of contemporary realities and of human potential. Accepting their role, they embrace its risks.

Existential politicians are one of us, not one of them. They do more than assume responsibility when they fail, which today masquerades as political maturity. On the contrary, existential politicians learn from their mistakes even as they own them. They own them because they are affected by them, not just in the polls but in the soul wherein conscience sits and sees what none can.

Presently (unfortunately), we expect less of our political leaders. Thus we accept what should incense, sanctioning reciprocally political pretensions.

In speaking, politicians generally don’t say anything worthwhile, and we don’t learn anything worth knowing, other than how badly language limps and reason wilts before cowardice and convention. Even then, however, we desire something different and deeper. Even then our hearts crave facts plain and views unuttered though they unsettle.

If The British are coming, politicians should say so! If Life is dear and peace is sweet, we want it proclaimed boldly and defended morally, not geographically and disingenuously. Otherwise decorum will conceal what conscience commands and reason compels.


joelbryantA former corporate trainer and university lecturer, Dr. Joel Bryant is an avid reader, writer, speaker, thinker and dreamer. He is also the author of over 40 books on various topics, each exploring themes of change, growth and greatness. He holds a doctorate in Educational Leadership from UNC Charlotte, where he spent five years lecturing in the Philosophy Department. He resides in Charlotte, NC.


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